Choose to be Curious

Curious & Wondrous Travel

Of new roads and secret gates. A celebration of discovery, wherever you are!

Listen to Choose to be Curious #48: Curious & Wondrous Travel with Elliot Carter.

Tolkein wrote “Not all those who wander are lost.” In this week’s Curiosity to Go segment, Elliot Carter and Karen Ward celebrate their curious eyes.

Listen to Curiosity to Go, Ep. 21: Wonder As You Wander

My Curious Eyes Season 4 starts March 5! Join me, Karen Ward and others from across the globe indulging a passion for curiosity and picture-taking. Sign up here.

Not sure what you’d be getting yourself into? Check out my gallery from Season 3.

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How I Found Elliot, or My Curiosity Bread Crumbs

One of the many things I love about living in the DMV is that it’s a place people visit. Family and friends come and go with reliable regularity, providing endless opportunities to be a tourist in our own hometown.

After a while, that list of things to see can get pretty familiar, maybe a little thread-worn, so I’m always on the outlook for interesting new destinations —-

But I’ve come to understand I’m a total slacker in this regard.

Utterly eclipsed by an inquisitive young man with the tantilizing title of Chief Explorer.

This story begins with the theory of the transformative power of attention – that if you pay enough attention, things get interesting…no matter how dull it may have initially seemed. (I talked with Caetlin Benson-Allott about that power in some depth recently.)

I first came across this idea in listening to James Ward, the London-based founder of The Boring Conference….you guessed it: a day-long conference about boring things.

He traces his roots to Andy Warhol – who also famously liked boring things — and French writer George Perek who wrote “An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris” for which he sat in a cafe and described everything he could see.

And then came back the next day and did it again.

And then again.

He wanted to explore what happens when nothing is happening…which is, of course, never, because once you get curious – once you start paying attention — you notice all sorts of things are going on all the time. You discover that in paying attention, you confer – or finally perceive – meaning.

….and that’s powerful.

So — I had this idea that it would be fun to find someone locally who has made an intense study of something, or who had an unusual collection of some sort, whom I might interview about having made that choice, to be curious about something truly obscure.

And that’s when I found Atlas Obscura – which calls itself the definitive guide to the world’s wondrous and curious places”—and Elliott Carter, Chief Explorer, who writes about such places in and around DC.

Their subjects are not boring — obscure, maybe, but definitely not boring. As Elliot puts it, he focuses on “the little-known facts about the well-known places.” And what a delightful concept that is: to plumb beyond the obvious, to pay enough attention to learn something more. To explore what we call home with fresh eyes.

Pardon me while I step outside…

JOY

Choose to be Curious

Transformative Power of Attention

When I first started researching curiosity, one of the most interesting things I found was the Boring Conference.  No joke: an honest-to-gosh, annual gathering to talk about things one would typically consider deadly dull — what organizers call “a one-day celebration of the mundane, the ordinary, the obvious and the overlooked.”

remote controlI’ve been taken with the idea of the transformative power of attention ever since — I love the idea that if we choose to be curious about something, even something otherwise considered utterly boring, it will get interesting.

Lucky for me, Georgetown professor and author of a whole book on remote controls, Caetlin Benson-Allott is also fascinated with such stuff…

Listen to Choose to be Curious #47: Transformative Power of Attention with Caetlin Benson-Allott. 

And, lucky for us all, librarians live to steward our attention, whatever its form. Arlingtonian Jennifer Rothschild will make you fall in love with your local librarian all over again.

Listen to Curiosity to Go, Ep. Oh, Those Rabbit Holes!

You can subscribe to Choose to be Curious on iTunes.

I’m always somewhere between delighted and humbled when I come across a curiosity-centric enterprise that is new to me.

I think: I should already know about this!

And: oh, cool! Who knew? 

Which were precisely my reactions when I stumbled across the social media presence of The Atlantic’s Object Lessons, a series on the hidden lives of ordinary things. I realized I’d read these pieces over the years, but never followed the digital breadcrumbs. Then one day, there they were.

An hour on, and I was still wriggling down rabbit holes and delighting in one improbable post after another. The pictures of cookware were what finally snagged me. Having spent a lot of time in the kitchen over the holidays and having become rather inured to the setting, I thought this was the perfect opportunity for a little culinary curiosity, a refresher course in what surrounds me.

And so Choose to be Curious, Kitchen Edition was born. For a week, I tried to look around my kitchen with fresh eyes, to appreciate anew the objects there and wonder at their stories. Whence had they come? Could their function be improved? Did I favor one over another? Why? I was always tickled by the queries that had never occurred to me before.

It was like fishing for new stories among old friends. I recommend it.

Kitchen - consider the pilot
Have you ever stopped to consider the “things” in your kitchen? Consider the pilot. #choosetobecurious #kitchen
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“You Can’t Help But Want to Know”

This is a story about not having a choice in one’s curiosity. About the burning need some of us have to learn even the most basic things about our origins, and ourselves.

It is the story of Sondra Kolker’s search for the father she had not seen since childhood.

“You can’t help but want to know” is how Jenny Perlman put it.

Listen to Choose to be Curious #46: Sondra’s Story – “You Can’t Help But Want to Know”

Which reminded me of another kind of family story, another journey of discovery and self-knowledge:

Listen to Curiosity to Go, Ep. 19: Be Curious and Be Curious Again.

You can now subscribe to Choose to be Curious on iTunes.

A Family Album

AJ Jack Perlman GraveIronically, we began at the end. The first real clue about what had become of Aaron J. Perlman, born in Brooklyn, was that he was buried in Paducah.

But how did a nice Jewish boy from New York end up in a church yard in Kentucky?  And how did he become “Jack”?

Frank and Celia Perlman immigrated to the United States in 1906. They made a home in New York and had three sons — Samuel, Aaron and Louis.

Like all good men of his time, Frank registered for the draft for World War I. Nearly 35, he wasn’t likely to serve, but years later his draft registration card became the first proof Sondra had about how to spell her birth name.

Frank draft registration

A little legwork on Ancestry.com, a little luck, and the dots began to connect. We found a phone number to the husband of a cousin and made an almost-desperate, random call. WEDDING FAMILY PICTURE“He was at my wedding!” the unsuspecting dentist-cum-cousin-in-law laughed in delight.

That call led to the cousin, and the cousin’s sister, and their very elderly mother, who might have met Sondra, once, a very long time ago.

More searching turned up a half brother who died too young. And a devoted sister-in-law, who honored her husband’s memory by keeping what photos there were and who had always wondered what had become of the little girl whom no one had known.

And a ring. A ring that Jack, who once was Aaron, wore every day and which Jenny Perlman would give to Sondra Kolker “because it belonged in the Perlman family.”

And, finally, two little Voice-O-Graph records in torn paper sleeves whose provenance was unknown and technology long-since eclipsed, but two little discs that could, through the miracle of modern technology, be converted and offer up the voices of Jack and young Frank, circa 1953.

The poet Raymond Carver wrote in “Late Fragment”, his last poem:

And did you get what
You wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
Beloved on the earth.

It was a circuitous path, but in the end, they all – Sondra, Jenny, Jack – they all have felt themselves beloved on this earth.

It’s still a bit of a mystery how Aaron J. Perlman, born June 14, 1911, of Frank and Celia, originally of Poland, then of Brooklyn, found his way to Paducah and ended up as Jack, but so many other unknowns have been answered, it’s hard to quibble.

We might learn more. We can stay curious.


Special thanks to my generous and much-loved story tellers: Sondra Kolker, David Kolker, Jennifer Mendelsohn and Jenny Perlman; to the good folks at George Blood, LLC who converted the Voice-O-Graph recordings; and to the indefatigable Antonio Villaronga who helped clear out the static so we could hear Jack’s voice in the story as well.

For more on Jennifer Mendelsohn’s work, visit her Facebook page @CleverTitleTK.

Music for this episode used under Creative Commons: Lost by Tyops,  Piano Moods by Herbert Boland, Sky Loop by FoolBoyMedia, and Piano Abstract by Yewbic, all of Freesound, as well as an instrumental interpretation of What A Wonderful World by Robert at archive.org and Cinematic Piano #025, 013, 015 from RoyaltyFreeMusic.